five good, five bad

I’m feeling a little uninspired to blog these days. It’s a tough beast, this Foreign Service blogging thing. It’s not that life overseas – life as a U.S. government representative overseas in particular – is boring. It’s not that at all. There’s so much I could say, that I would like to say, but should I? Would what I think is funny be seen as offensive by a Beninese person or third-country national who stumbled upon my blog? I’m in the business of public diplomacy — I definitely don’t want that. Might another Foreign Service Officer judge my words in a way that impacts my career? It certainly happens. And then there’s safety. I think I’m wise enough to withhold the sort of information that could be used for harm, but what if I make a misstep?

Officially, personal blogging is allowed by Foreign Service Officers – allowed, but highly discouraged. I can’t even count how many new blogs I’ve seen pop up over the past few years by excited new hires, only to quickly be abandoned after the “here is why social media is evil and will kill your career and ruin the world” portion of A-100. Okay, there’s no official social media is evil portion, but it comes up. Frequently. I’ve been lucky in that no one has ever told me to stop blogging, but many officers (and their family members) do receive such orders from supervisors or chiefs of mission.

My policy has always been to blog but blog smartly. But more and more, being smart about blogging takes quite a bit of the fun away. Is blogging even a worthwhile pursuit if I’m self-censoring so much that I’m not sharing any of the truly interesting stuff? I don’t know. I’m trying to sort that out.

While I do, let me buy myself some time with this post — a submission to the regular Foreign Service blog roundup. The topic: five good things and five bad things about your current post that somoene considering bidding on a job there should know. Let me point out that my list pertains only to the experience of living overseas as a diplomat. Being in Benin as a Peace Corps volunteer, missionary, or nonprofit worker is definitely a different experience.

Five good:

  • The Embassy community. Cotonou is a tiny post. There are about a dozen direct hire Americans and very few other Americans in the expat community, basically just Peace Corps volunteers and a scattering of missionaries. The larger expat community is mostly Francophone and quite hard to break into if you don’t have much more than the standard FSI 3/3 French. As a result, the Embassy community becomes very tight. It feels a bit like a freshman dorm, before all the athletes find each other and the pre-med students break off and the drama enthusiasts form their own little group. Here, because there’s really little other choice, you end up hanging out with people with different backgrounds and in different life stages — people you probably would have overlooked in another setting. But it keeps things interesting, and the camraderie can be great.
  • The calm. Benin is politically stable. People are friendly and like Americans. The traffic is manageable. It’s an easy place to live if you’re the sort of person who likes a short commute home from work and then to relax at home. Embassy houses are very comfortable. All have at least four bedrooms. Many have large yards and/or a pool. Design choices and construction standards can be… intresting. But still, you’ll be living well. It’s not a high stress environment.
  • Food. Unfortunately I’m not a huge fan of West African food, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many international food options there are. Good pizza is readibly available, as is Thai and Indian as good as any you’ll find in the States, Russian, lots of French, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and some mediocre but passable sushi. Good quality fruits and vegetables are plentiful. There are plenty of grocery stores. Fresh seafood is everywhere.
  • Beaches. Cotonou is on the water, so beach options abound. The strong undertow makes swimming in the ocean tricky, but there are also lots of pools and a nice day resort where swimming is possible in a lagoon. There are a few decent resorts about an hour or two outside of town where you can spend a weekend. There are nice restaurants where you can enjoy delicious fresh catches. If you like beach culture, this is a good place. 
  • Household help. Like many new Foreign Service Officers, I scoffed at the stories from seasoned FSOs during A-100 about how they employed a small army of household staff during some previous tour. I was not like that, I maintained. I was independent. I had lived abroad by myself before. I would be a different sort of FSO. Then I had a kid. Okay, I guess we need a nanny. Then the reality of living abroad and working a real job set in. Okay, maybe a housekeeper wouldn’t be so bad either. It still feels a little strange to have people working for me at my home, but at the end of the day it makes life a whole lot easier, and it’s supporting several families. I’ve come around on the whole household help issue, and the availablity of comparatively low cost and high quality help is a huge advantage to living in Benin.

Five bad:

  • The Embassy community. Like I said, Cotonou is a tiny post. This has the potential to be very good, but it also has the potential to be very bad. In such a small post, one or two bad apples can make life miserable for everyone.
  • The lack of entertainment options. There’s no movie theatre, no mall, no public park. There’s not a lot to do. Social options are the beach, a few hotel pools, restaurants, and pot-lucks at other people’s homes. This rotation can get a little tiring. If you’re single, young, or otherwise able to roll with the punches and be adverturous, you can make your own fun exploring giant markets, nightclubs, traditional festivals in tiny villages, commissioning boat rides, heading up north to a small safari park, and so forth. If you have small kids, health issues, don’t speak French, etc., finding fun but still safe things to do can be trickier. 
  • The isolation. Abandon whatever romantic notions you had about using Benin as a jumping off point for all sorts of exotic African travels. It’s really hard and really expensive to travel within the continent. There are only direct flights to Kenya, Morocco and recently South Africa; they will cost you around $1,000. Unless you’re willing to fly on pretty questionable airlines, anywhere else needs to be reached via Europe. What about driving? Ha. I assure you that Timbuktu is not as close to Cotonou as it appears on a map. And maps don’t factor in dirt roads and makeshift checkpoints. It’s also a long and expensive flight back to the U.S., so it’s unlikely you’ll be getting home more than once in your two-year tour.
  • Slow Internet. I understand that Benin’s Internet used to be a lot worse, so I’m very grateful for the improvements that we enjoy. Still, it’s less than ideal. We pay three or four times as much as we would back in the United States for a connection speed that at its best is tolerable and at its worst is non-functional. It’s probably better than a lot of other places in Africa, but if streaming videos is essential for your happiness or if a spouse is counting on telecommuting to a job back in the States, think again.
  • The difficulty of seemingly simple stuff. Some people love making bagels, sour cream or tortillas from scratch. We are not those people. But here, we’ve been forced to become those people. Your normal routines will take much, much more time here, even with household help to carry a lot of the load. You can’t pay your satellite bill online, and you might have to go to the store three times before the one person who knows how to process your payment is actually around, for example. You may have to hit seven different grocery stores to accomplish what you would back home in one. If one member of your family isn’t working outside of the home, this all is manageable and actually helps fill the time. But with all adult members of your family working, daily chores can eat significantly into your precious free time. 

Of course, this is just our experience as a first-tour couple towing along a baby and dog. I’d venture to guess that our friends and colleagues here would have at least somewhat different opinions.

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12 Responses to five good, five bad

  1. Mara Rae says:

    Interesting post, both in terms of the Foreign Service blogging, and your thoughts on Benin. My husband doesn’t blog, but I do, and I would be pretty bummed if I had to stop because of his work. It’s how I maintain my sanity – by turning challenges into funny stories – and how I keep in touch with most of my friends and family members. And my writing blog is important as an aspiring author. I guess we’ll see what happens…
    As far as Benin goes, it seems to have the pluses Yekat lacks and vice versa. I guess I’ll find out for sure in two weeks when we move!

  2. Lynn says:

    Please don’t stop blogging! I know you have no clue who I am, but my husband is trying to become a foreign service officer. He passed the FSOT, we’re just waiting to hear back whether or not he passed the personal narrative questions now. Yours is the first foreign service blog I’ve found, and I’ve been reading it, and using your flag day stories to find other blogs to read as well.

    I totally understand and am intrigued by what you are and are not allowed to blog. I used to be a blogger (we used to live in a tiny village in rural Alaska), and ended up having to privatize my blog for a while, because a local villager found it and thought what I was blogging about made the village look bad. Reading all these foreign service blogs drives me crazy though, because I can tell a lot of times when people are purposely leaving details out, and as a potential foreign service wife, those are the details I want to know all about! Oh well, keeping my fingers crossed that soon enough my husband will move along in the process and I’ll have to make the decision about whether or not I’ll restart my blog.

  3. john brown says:

    With all due respect for freedom of expression and your devotion to our country, I think you complain far too much about trivial things. Aren’t you grateful for a a taxpayer-paid-for job you yourself chose? If you really can’t stand it, quit — I hope for more substantive reasons than stated in your blog. Best, John

  4. Alex says:

    @John – You’re absolutely right – it’s a great job for which I’m very grateful, but as you know, it’s also a job that’s unlike any other. It’s not just a job; it’s a way of life. And while exciting and rewarding, this also places a lot of unique demands on not only officers but also their families, immediate and extended. The point of this exercise (dozens of other bloggers made similar lists) was to help other foreign service families anticipate the sort of challenges they will face in various places so they can make educated bidding decisions. Every post has challenges, to be sure, but the challenges are different everywhere. For me, at this particular stage in my life, being a long and expensive plane ride from extended family (and not being able to reliably communicate by internet) is not a trivial thing, for instance. For someone else, this might not be an issue. (Even for me, pre-kids, this wouldn’t have been an issue.) For someone else, living in a big crowded city might be very stressful and taxing. For me, that would be exciting.

    Plus, based on what I’ve seen, a happy family leads to a more productive officer – so I think talking about these sort of things and allowing families to make the best decisions for them is ultimately good for taxpayers.

  5. Connie says:

    John may think the things you complain about are ‘trivial’, but I’m thinking he must be doing this from the comfort of home. Sorry John, not trying to be insulting (honestly) but it really is the ‘little things’ that can get to you, so being prepared for the good things at post, as well as the bad, trivial, and annoying, is truly important. When we made our last move, my kids’ first question was “Will they have tortillas?”. With our coming move it’s “Will our house have stairs, do they have good internet, and can we have a little garden?” They aren’t really concerned about traffic, stability, pollution, schools, etc. They want to know about LIFE at post, and that can be as simple as knowing whether or not you can drink the water, that the movie theatres aren’t that good, or loving that your apartment comes with pink geckos that run across your ceilings and a landlady who bakes you local treats. Totally trivial, sure, but you’ll live with it every day. Every day. For years. Pointing out the bad as well as the good does not mean that bad is all that you see, it’s just being honest. I could do a similar post about being stuck in DC for the summer! The majority of us do believe there are more pros than cons, or we wouldn’t be out here, but knowing what to expect from a post, knowing that you aren’t the only one thinking ‘what the…?’, this is helpful. Blog on Alex!

  6. AC Clark says:

    I agree very much with the last two posters and with all due respect to John, I highly doubt he has lived any amount of time abroad. Aside from the fact that it’s a pure joy to read a blog from someone who so eloquently and sincerely observes and then shares her experiences, blogs like this allow a window into a life in a most of us won’t know — even those of us who do live abroad will not live in more than a couple of countries, or a handful at most. It’s a way to live vicariously through another’s experience in a different corner of the world. At the same time, for many people, it’s a shared experience, and we can all relate because we’ve experienced similar things in different places (even right here in the U.S., sometimes — I just had a terribly confusing-to-the-senses experience in DC). Blogs like this at times provide a wildly entertaining mix of stories, informative details, or reflections that make us smile, or feel comforted, surprised, intrigued….. that inform on the shared experience of expat life. Whether we work for the private sector, NGOs, public sector, etc — we can all relate to these experiences. Heck, many of us can even relate without even leaving the U.S.! — and because they’re such universal human experiences, we can all relate. Kudos to the writers of the blog!

  7. Theresa says:

    Please don’t stop blogging. Many of us FS bloggers (officers, EFMs, and MOHs alike) are suffering from similar questions, and while we do have to self-censor on occasion, it’s important to show the world (both internal to State and external) what we do and how we do it.

    When I was an LES, then when I was in A-100, and even today as first tour officer, I see so many things that work well, but also so many things that could be better. There are a million small things that I’ve sworn, “When I’m in charge, I will do things differently.” Nothing will ever change if we don’t fight for it. If we give up the ghost on blogging and social media now, what does that mean for everyone that will follow?

  8. Angela says:

    I can totally relate to your FS blog worries. I’m a Specialist, and have always blogged privately. But, just now having started a public blog, it’s worrisome what can come back to haunt you, and/or what may derail your career. I think it’s probably tougher on FSO’s but it’s still a pain. Good luck with your quest, though! I know I find it so much easier to vent on my private blog than my public one!

  9. Oh, Alex, don’t give John Brown a second thought. In fact, for anyone reading this, John Brown is a malicious troll whose favorite online pastime is to hit FS bloggers with mean, cruel comments just for attention and to stir up trouble. The best thing for all FS bloggers to do is to delete his comments and act like they never happened. Responding to him really is just feeding trolls, unfortunately. Don’t give him the satisfaction of actually getting attention and responses for his drive-by eggings of our blogs.


  10. Donna says:

    Hey! You know you’ve arrived when you’ve been “John Browned.” None of your complaints are trivial. Not one. In fact, this is one of the best good/bad blog posts I’ve read so far. Reasoned, not at all whiny, and really gives me a strong sense of the reality of your post.

    I share some of your concerns about the FS blog world. But, for what it’s worth, I think you’re doing a good job walking the tightrope. I’ve never seen anything here that made me raise my eyebrows, and yet you make it real for the rest of us.

    Keep it up, please.

  11. Steve says:

    Having been to Benin, unlike I presume John Brown, this list is spot on! I liked it, but nowhere, especially Washington DC and the US, is perfect!

    You forgot to add agouti as a good! 🙂

  12. Cathy says:

    I had to laugh when I read about making bagels, tortillas and sour cream…three things I learned to make at my last post (Bujumbura) and now I feel like I can survive if I wake up one morning in the 1850s…

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